Integral World Forum

Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

Source: Beyond the Matrix Now blog

Please feel free to write me at with
suggestions as to why the premise of this essay is wrong:

PREMISE: There are no scientific findings which preclude considering consciousness as a causal factor in the universe. Nor are there findings in any area of science—including quantum physics, parapsychology or near-death experience research—which require the consideration of consciousness as a causal factor (both of these statements are in regard to current scientific methodology).


What, if anything, does science tell us about reality?

Don Salmon

"Sit down before fact like a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly to wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing."
--Thomas Huxley, 19th century skeptic who coined the term "agnostic"
Rather than presenting us with reality, the most we can say is that scientists have classified, correlated, and ultimately, measured the data received by our senses.

Jan (my wife) and I are preparing a series of videos investigating the question of what it is we really know (scientifically) about the nature of the real world. The major themes we explore in the videos are fleshed out more fully in first five chapters of our book, Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity. In those chapters, we look at a variety of scientific findings and suggest that those findings, in themselves, give us no more reason to assert that the nature of the "real" world is non-conscious, than to say that it's conscious.[1][i]

Though the early chapters of our book received favorable comments, we've noticed that people, even when they've agreed with the ideas, still find it difficult to integrate those ideas with their everyday experience.

As an example, let's look at the well-corroborated scientific idea that the objects we perceive are constructs of the mind.[2] As neurologist Oliver Sacks puts it, "When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection." No matter how often we may hear this, it seems that we continue on with our lives, assuming that we're confronting a world of objects that are just "there"—that is, appearing precisely the way we perceive them even if we're not looking at, or listening to, or touching them.[3]

Many accept the idea that the perceived world is a construction of the mind, but assume that the real world is that which physicists have described—a world of subatomic particles, electromagnetic fields, and so on. However, as physicists themselves have been telling us for more than a half century, these too are mind-constructed concepts and may have little or no resemblance to a mind-independent reality (if there is one). According to physicist Werner Heisenberg, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

(1) If you believe the idea that science doesn't provide definitive evidence of a non-conscious reality is quite obviously refuted by such things as the second law of thermodynamics, the fallacy of "God-of-the-gaps," the absurdity of idealistic philosophy, and Ockham's razor, you may want to quickly read the first endnote before going through the paper.

(2) Actually, people usually say "brain" instead of "mind;" I'm using "mind" here for reasons that I hope will become clear as you read on. But to give a brief explanation, the "brain" -- as a perceived object, is another of those mind-constructed objects that is being called into question.

(3) Appearing that way even if not observed by anybody.

It seems that, if we were to truly accept and absorb this fact, the effect would be earth-shattering. But for the most part, this idea seems to have had little effect on our thinking or behavior. Some, like physician Herbert Benson, have taken into account the interdependence of mind and matter by speaking of psychosomatic or "mind-body" medicine, intending by this term to convey the sense of a psychosomatic unity. But if we were to work through the implications of what Sacks, Heisenberg and others have told us, we would, similarly, have to speak of all of nature (that is, experienced nature) as a psychophysical unity.

So why is it that no matter how often we hear this, we forget it as soon as we return to our everyday pursuits? As Owen Barfield put it, "we have proved that nature is psychophysical but we are determined to forget it as quickly as possible. Even our experts themselves, even science forgets, whenever it is not at the moment actually engaged in investigating perception or otherwise bypassing nature's macroscopic objectivity. We know, but our basic assumptions remain opposite to what we know. They arise therefore, not from clear thought but from force of habit; and they are all the less easily eradicable and all the more compulsive because they are only half conscious."[ii]

This is where the videos come in. Jan and I think that perhaps an audio-visual format may be more effective in making some of our basic assumptions more conscious, and in helping us come to terms with how profoundly transformative these too-often-neglected insights could actually be. We are hoping that the use of music and animation may help foster a more contemplative mood, that will make it easier to see how readily our habitual assumptions rise up to prevent our experiencing both ourselves and the world in a new way.

What follows is a brief outline and a more descriptive summary of the major ideas we'll be presenting in the videos. The actual words used in the video series will be simpler and more conversational. What we'd like to ask of you is to look over the summary and help us identify any places we've made philosophic or scientific errors.

Our ultimate aim in the video series is not to prove anything, nor is it primarily to suggest an alternative to materialism. Our major aim is simply to show that, if it is true that all we discover through our scientific methods are perceptual and conceptual constructs—and it seems that this is the consensus of an overwhelming number of experts in a wide variety of scientific fields—then it should be possible to at least consider the possibility that whatever exists apart from our percepts and concepts is not necessarily non-conscious, non-living, and non-intelligent (though it may be so).


"So much of science consists of things we can never see: light 'waves' and charged 'particles'; magnetic 'fields' and gravitational 'forces'; quantum 'jumps' and electron 'orbits.' In fact, none of these phenomena is literally what we say it is. Light waves do not undulate through empty space in the same way that water waves ripple over a still pond; a field is only a mathematical description of the strength and direction of a force; an atom does not literally jump from one quantum state to another; and electrons do not really travel around the atomic nucleus in orbits. The words we use are merely metaphors. "When it comes to atoms," wrote quantum physicist Neils Bohr, 'language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images...'
--Cole, K.C. [iii]

The outstanding achievement of twentieth century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the resultant discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with the ultimate reality. We are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light, and can only watch the shadows on the wall.
--Sir James Jeans[iv]

Apart from the experience of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness...
--Alfred North Whitehead.[v]



  1. All that we experience is within (or "by means of") consciousness.
  2. The forms or "percepts" that we refer to as "nature" (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness —and they are constructed by the mind.
  3. The knowledge of the universe provided by science is comprised of concepts which are derived from the observation of percepts—and are also mind-constructed.
  4. Science only explains a limited aspect of our experience.
    1. Whatever-it-is that our percepts are a response to, and which our scientific concepts attempt to explain, lies beyond our conscious experience . It is therefore essentially unknown, and for simplicity we will refer to it as "X."
      1. Science can neither tell us what X is, nor explain why[vi] percepts and constructs take the form they do.
    2. Scientific constructs are based on observed regularities in the percepts we call the "world," which are then simplified and mathematized.
      1. Science cannot, using current methods, explain how these spatio-temporal regularities (STRs; also known as "laws of nature") came to be or why they persist.
  5. Because scientific methods do not tell us what lies beyond our mind-constructed percepts and constructs, there is no scientific finding that compels us to think of "X" as either conscious or non-conscious, living or non-living, intelligent or non-intelligent.


At this moment, are you awake or dreaming?


Part 1. All That We Experience is Within Consciousnes

"And I thought I woke and my mother was standing there". When I really woke I was frozen in between; I didn't know who I was, it was a dream inside a dream?
--Joan Baez, The Dream Song.

Calvin's False Awakening

All that we experience, all that we know—even that which we discover through the most sophisticated scientific methods—is known within (or by means of) consciousness.[4]

This probably sounds so obvious that it's hardly worth saying. Yes, the computer screen in front of me is —for me—"in" my awareness. The chair I'm sitting in, the floor I stand on, the walls around me and ceiling above—I know them only because they are within my awareness. I close my eyes, and—for me—there's no computer screen, no walls, no ceiling. And if I leave the room, then—for me—there's no chair or floor either, right?

Yes, it's that simple and that obvious. However, for some of you, the statement "All we know is within our consciousness" may not seem so obvious. Ordinarily we determine what is "real" by asking, "what exists outside or apart from my consciousness?" Since we ordinarily assume that the objects around us are real—that is, they exist apart from our consciousness—it may be a bit of a stretch to acknowledge that we only know of them through our consciousness.

It might be possible to get a better feeling for the question of how consciousness relates to reality by looking at a situation where the question about what's "real"—that is, whether something exists only in "my" consciousness or whether it really exists "out there," in the "real" world, apart from my consciousness—is no longer taken for granted.

(4) Though not necessarily within "my" consciousness. Philosopher John Searle makes a similar point about the priority of consciousness when he says, "Consciousness is not just an important feature of reality. There is a sense in which it is the most important feature of reality because all other things have value, importance, merit, or worth only in relation to consciousness. If we value life, justice, beauty, survival, reproduction, it is only as conscious beings that we value them." From Searle, Mind, Language and Society, p. 73.

False Awakenings—are these objects within or outside "my" consciousness

Dream researchers have coined the term "false awakening" to refer to the following kind of experience: you wake up from a dream, get up, go about preparing for your day, then suddenly find yourself back in bed, having just awakened from a dream. In other words, you just had a dream in which you thought—incorrectly—that you'd awakened—hence the name, "false awakening." A false awakening can be quite persuasive. As one dreamer reported, "I've been experiencing false awakenings more frequently lately. Yesterday, I dreamed of waking up, using the bathroom, brushing my teeth and hair, walking into my home office, and booting up my computer, before I finally realized I was dreaming."

Often there's a kind of "uncanny" feeling that happens in the midst of a false awakening. You wake up (you think!), you get out of bed and you stop for a moment, not quite sure what's going on, but something doesn't feel quite right. If you've had lucid dreams before (a lucid dream is the exact opposite of a false awakening; it's a dream in which you're fully aware that you're dreaming),[vii] you might perform what is known in the lucid dreaming community as a "reality check." That is, you try to find something you can see or feel to establish whether or not you are awake or dreaming.

(Think about that term for a moment—"reality check." What exactly is the "reality" that one is attempting to check? One is trying to determine if what they experience is entirely within their consciousness, or whether it exists outside their consciousness; that is, in the "real" world. With regard to false awakenings, it's not as easy as it may seem.)

Here's an account of a false awakening from Rebecca Turner, who teaches lucid dreaming. She was in her home and started to get an uncanny feeling that something was wrong. A long time lucid dreamer, she knew that when this feeling came on, it was time to do a "reality check"—that is, to do something to determine whether she really was "awake"—that is, whether the things around her exist apart from her consciousness.

As she described it, "Even while I did my reality check and tried to push my hand through the glass window, my brain[5] refused to accept the possibility of it passing through. Instead, my hand bounced off the glass realistically. I was dumbstruck. Being unable to rationalize what was happening, I clumsily explored my house, knowing that something was wrong but unable to define it. I use very tactile reality checks, so I went around touching everything, unsuccessfully trying to put my hand through things, experiencing the most vivid dream I have ever had. Eventually I found my partner in the kitchen cooking dinner at 7 AM. Logic bomb! I instantly became lucid and flew away."

Sometimes false awakenings can occur several times in a row—the philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed to have experienced hundreds of successive false awakenings while coming out of anesthesia. Here's a description of an experience I had of sequential false awakenings.

I was in an airport believing I was awake; that is, I was in a non-lucid dream). I started to get a feeling that something was wrong, and I noticed that the ceiling was painted a very unusual color. I then became lucid—that is, I was aware I was not "really" in an airport, but was only dreaming I was in one. The airport scene faded, and I found myself in bed, awake—or so I thought. I got up, stretched a bit, and started to walk toward the bathroom. The scene faded, and I found myself once again lying in bed.

I had experienced false awakenings before so I decided to do a reality check. First, I looked at my alarm clock.[viii] It looked normal, so I got out of bed and stepped onto the floor. It felt hard. I looked around some more, and everything looked quite normal. Then, as I walked toward the bathroom, the scene faded and I found myself once again lying in bed.

(5) "brain" or "mind"?

Now is where it got a bit uncomfortable. I began doing the kind of reality checks that Rebecca Turner described above. Everything looked crystal clear, everything felt very solid and tangible. I touched the alarm clock. The numbers were clear on the clock, the table it rested on was hard to the touch. Everything I looked at was clear; everything I touched was solid. I thought about what I did the day before and what my plans were for the coming day. My mind felt crystal clear. I continued checking "reality" for what felt like a minute or more. At some point, I realized that I could not think of a single way to determine whether this was a dream or I was awake.

That is, I could not think of a single way to determine if everything around me existed solely within "my" consciousness, or whether I was experiencing a world that existed independent of my consciousness.

Can you?

Keep this example of the false awakening in mind as we explore further. And with that, keep in mind Barfield's observation that although we have been told by the experts that we know things only by means of consciousness, "we are determined to forget it as quickly as possible" we know, but our basic assumptions remain opposite to what we know. They arise therefore, not from clear thought but from force of habit; and they are all the less easily eradicable and all the more compulsive because they are only half conscious."


Part II

  1. All that we experience is within consciousness
  2. The forms or "percepts" that we refer to as "nature" (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness —and they are constructed by the mind.

"The physical body [which we take to be the self] is but the focus in which the forms-of our sense-experience are, as it were, collected. The idea of the body as standing in its own right, as a collection of flesh, bones, nerves and so forth, is an artificial mental construction obtained by abstraction from conscious experience.
--Sri Krishna Prem [ix]

The notion of a persistent physical object is logically no more than a hypothesis to explain the fact that the objects of a number of perceptual situations can be correlated...
--C.E.M. Joad [x]


At this moment, are you awake or dreaming?
Do the objects around you exist solely within your consciousness? [6]

(6) This is not intended to support or even suggest a solipsistic perspective. The aim is to invite questioning—visceral questioning—of our ordinary assumptions about what's "real."

To repeat our premise:

All that we experience, all that we know—even that which we discover
through the most sophisticated scientific methods—
is known within consciousness.

And still, you may feel, "so what?" The world of solid objects seems just so ineradicably "there"—the towering redwood tree, the 50-story skyscraper, the blazing sun with a diameter of nearly a million miles. How can they depend on my consciousness? How can my consciousness play a part in constructing them?

The world of multitudinous objects seems so obstinately "there" because we are not aware of the constant, almost unthinkably complex process of construction that our minds are engaged in every moment of our waking (and dreaming) life.

Perhaps a story may help give you a better sense of how complex this construction project actually is.

The Story of Virgil—Constructing the Visual World(7)

Virgil had been functionally blind since the age of six. All that remained of his sight was the capacity to "see light and dark, the direction from which light came, and the shadow of a hand moving in front of his eyes." At age fifty, he had an operation to remove the cataracts that had obscured his vision for over forty years. For most blind patients whose sight has been restored , they are able to see and comprehend the world without difficulty immediately following the operation.[8] But Virgil was different. As he described it later to neurologist Oliver Sacks, in the first moments after his bandages were removed,

"he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, 'Well'—Then, and only then, did he realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face—and, indeed, the face of his surgeon.[xi]

For Virgil, every moment after his operation involved a painful struggle to literally 'make' sense of the patches of light and color registered by his eyes. As Sacks explains it:

The rest of us, born sighted, can scarcely imagine such confusion. For we, born with a full complement of sense, and correlating these, one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings. When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world. We make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eyes, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant's visual experiences and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support a perception; there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.[xii]

(7) The point of the story of Virgil is not so much to add a new piece to an argument as to invite meditative reflection on the nature of our present experience. Try looking at various objects with a very quiet, focused, spacious mind, seeing the object as a relationship with your awareness (a subject-object) rather than a wholly independent "thing".

(8) The difference is, almost all patients who have their sight restored lost their vision later in life, after they had "learned"to see as older children or young adults.

In order to bind together what were disparate sensations into familiar objects, Virgil spent hours consciously attending to the minute details of even the most common objects of his household, looking at them from various angles, trying with his mind to 'figure out' what they were.

According to Sacks, Virgil generally

found walking 'scary' and 'confusing'—with his uncertain, unstable judgment of space and distance. Sometimes surfaces or objects would seem to loom, to be on top of him, when they were still quite a distance away, sometimes he would get confused by his own shadow (the whole concept of shadows, of objects blocking light, was puzzling to him) and would come to a stop, or trip, or try to step over it. Steps, in particular, posed a special hazard, because all he could see was a confusion, a flat surface, or parallel and crisscrossing lines; he could not see them (although he knew them) as solid objects going up or coming down in 3-dimensional space". His dog, as he moved, looked so different from different perspectives, he at times wondered if it was even the same dog."[xiii]

"As Virgil explored the rooms of his house, investigating, so to speak, the visual construction of the world, I was reminded of an infant moving his hand to and fro before his eyes, waggling his head, turning it this way and that, in his primal construction of the world. Most of us have no sense of the immensity of this construction, for we perform it seamlessly, unconsciously, thousands of times every day, at a glance. But this is not so for a baby, [and] it was not so for Virgil."[xiv]


Which is more "real", a rainbow or a tree?

You may have a few questions at this point. First, it may be hard to see how this applies to you, since you're not blind. But actually, the only difference between you and Virgil (or you and an infant) is the speed with which this process takes place. In fact, you (or your mind, or "brain") are performing the exact same, incredibly complex process of construction at every moment—with regard to each thing you see—and with regard to each thing you hear, touch, taste and smell as well. It's just that for you, it happens so quickly you're not aware of it.

Let's look at this process of construction in relation to the main ideas of this essay. If all we know is within our consciousness, and all the forms we perceive within consciousness are mind-constructed, what does it mean to say that something is "real"—that is, exists independent of consciousness altogether"

Let's start by examining the "reality" of a rainbow.[9]

A rainbow is an arching splendor of light and color, often spanning what appears to be a fairly large region of space. Imagine now that you're standing outside, looking at a rainbow against the backdrop of a wide blue sky, and consider the following question: "Is the rainbow 'really' there?"

When we ask of a thing, is it really there, what we really mean is, does it exist independent of my consciousness—would it still be there if I closed my eyes. So think about the rainbow—you know if you were to walk to where the rainbow seems to end, it wouldn't be "there;" after considering the question a bit more, you'll probably come to the conclusion (as scientists have) that what we call the "rainbow" is really something that only exists as a relationship between sunlight, moisture, and your visual awareness of it. But you might then be tempted to clarify this by saying, of course, the light and moisture are "really" there, but the rainbow is not.

(9) This particular example is based on the opening chapter of Owen Barfield's "Saving the Appearances." This section, as well as much of the rest of the essay, owes a great deal to the work of Paul Brunton.

Now consider a tree. At first glance, a tree seems quite different from a rainbow. You can not only look at it, you can hear the noise its leaves make in the wind, you can smell its resins and—perhaps even more important in terms of its "reality"—you can walk up to it and touch it, thus assuring yourself that it's composed of "solid" matter.

Now, ask the same question you asked of the rainbow: Is the tree "really" there" Remember what we generally mean when we ask if something is real is whether or not it exists apart from my consciousness—or more precisely, whether it exists apart from any conscious observer whatsoever.

If you think about it a bit more, you might say, "well, we know what "really" exists apart from my consciousness of the tree are the subatomic particles, or waves, or whatever you want to call them, that physicists tell us are the components of the "real" world. But we've already seen that scientists have come to the conclusion that these waves, particles, etc. are simply conceptual models they have constructed on the basis of perceptual experience. So whatever the "real" tree is "made of"—if "made of" is the right way to put it—is ultimately unknown. To keep it simple, let's call that unknown, "X."[10]

Now think back to the rainbow. A "rainbow," we said, does not exist by itself, but is rather a relationship between an observer and a combination of moisture and light. As different as the tree seems to us, it's exactly the same thing—at least, for the tree as we experience it. That is, the experienced tree, just like the rainbow, does not exist by itself, but is rather a relationship between an observer and—well, in this case, we have an unknown, "X".

To be specific, the brown color of the bark, the sound of the leaves moving in the wind, the smell of the resins, the solid "feel" of the tree—none of these exist independently of your (or some kind of) consciousness. Rather, they are a relationship between your consciousness and an unknown reality, or "X" .[11]

To really get a feel for this, you might want to bring to mind a number of objects you encounter regularly in your day-to-day life—your home, your car, the building where you work, etc. If you do this keeping in mind that all you know of them is within your consciousness—you may find the "texture" of your experience shifting, at least a little bit. To the extent this happens for you, it may be a bit easier to consider some of the possibilities suggested in later sections of this essay.

(10) It would complicate the story too much to go into detail about the sunlight and moisture, but it's worth a quick mention here that the same analysis could be made of them -- that is, if we're talking about the experience of light, it has no more independent reality than the rainbow or tree. Think about it.....

(11) Please note this is not intended to support a philosophy of idealism -- there is no claim being made here that consciousness "creates"the tree. The idea is much simpler -- the experienced tree is a relationship between your consciousness and an unknown "X"which does not depend for its existence on your individual consciousness. In this particular essay, I'm not aiming to support or refute idealism, nor any other particular philosophic view.

But there's an important question that you may have, that could prove to be an obstacle to taking this exercise seriously. You may wonder why I keep referring to that which is constructing experience as "mind." Isn't "mind" a relic of the superstitious, unscientific past? Doesn't everyone agree that "mind" is just a word for processes taking place in the physical brain? For example, in the passage above, Oliver Sacks explains that Virgil's difficulty lay in the fact that "his retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them." Wasn't it Virgil's brain that was having trouble putting his world together for him? (and, within the contemporary physicalist framework, can we even speak of "Virgil" as distinct from his "brain" ?)

Is the brain the source of consciousness, or consciousness the source of the brain, or both, or neither?

Let's look for a moment at the physiologist's description of the brain. The following is a poetic account taken from the writings of Charles Sherrington, whose early 20th century research formed the basis for modern neurophysiology.

The eye sends into the cell-and-fibre forest of the brain throughout the waking day continual rhythmic streams of tiny, individually evanescent, electrical potentials. This throbbing streaming crowd of electrified shifting points in the spongework of the brain bears no obvious semblance in space pattern—and even in temporal relation resembles but a little remotely—the tiny two-dimensional upside-down picture of the outside world which the eyeball paints on the beginnings of its nerve fibers to the brain. But that little picture sets up an electrical storm. And that electrical storm so set up is one which affects a whole population of brain cells.[xv]

Consider this passage in terms of the fact that in both our ordinary experience and in the results of scientific research, we find nothing but percepts and concepts constructed by the mind. The eye, the "cell-and-fiber forest," the "spongework of the brain," nerve fibers and brain cells—these are all percepts. The "evanescent, electrical potentials" which Sherrington poetically describes as an "electric storm," are concepts based on the behavior of those percepts. When you are attending to these percepts, you are not looking directly at someone's experience.

Let's say you're looking at a 22nd century brain scan of John's brain. This brain scan allows you to look directly at the activity of the eye, the optic nerve, the occipital lobe—as well as all the hundreds of billions of other brain cells. During the scan, John is imagining he is playing a game of basketball. No matter how long and how carefully you look at his brain scan, you will never see his experience of imagining the game. What you see may in some way be correlated with his experience, but you are not looking directly at his actual experience.

Alan Wallace, the founder/director of the Institute for Consciousness Studies at UC Santa Barbara, has a very simple way of saying this—science at the present time has no way of detecting the presence of consciousness (that is, subjective, experiential consciousness) anywhere in the universe. I recently pointed this out to a neuropsychologist, who was astounded at the comment, responding that the whole profession of anesthesiology is based on detecting consciousness. If by "consciousness," he was referring to activities of the brain that correlate with conscious experience, that is certainly true.

But if "consciousness" refers to what anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff refers to as "the ineffable phenomenon of pure subjective experience," [xvi] then Alan Wallace is correct, there is no way for an anesthesiologist—or a physicist, biologist, psychologist, or any other scientist—to detect consciousness. What the anesthesiologist detects is physical evidence of consciousness, but not consciousness itself.[12] This is true not only for the human brain, but for all living creatures. It is true of matter as well—that is, if there were any consciousness associated with matter, scientists—using even the most advanced methods and the most complex technology—would have no way of detecting it.

(12) As Richard Dawkins points out, "it is impossible to tell, from the physical attributes of a nerve impulse, whether it is conveying information about light, about sound or about smell."(from The Blind Watchmaker, p. 23) In other words, when you're observing neuronal activity, you're not receiving any direct information about experienced light, sound or smell -- what Hameroff refers to as "the ineffable phenomenon of pure subjective experience.

When we talk about brain activity on the one hand, and subjective experience on the other, we're not talking about two different "things." We're looking at the world in two very different ways. But, as Barfield warned us, by force of half-conscious habit we keep forgetting this, and then get involved in an ill-conceived struggle to figure out how the world can be divided up into two such different "things" —objective brain functioning vs. subjective experience.[13]

Let's continue with Sherrington's account of the brain, as it does a good job of bringing out the mystery inherent in trying to identify our subjective experience with our objective knowledge of the brain (or, one might say, with our habit of seeing the brain purely as an object):

"The electrical charges going to the brain have no squareness, roundness, cold, hot, etc; how is this possible? Physics and chemistry are silent on these questions. The mind is a something with such manifold variety, such fleeting changes, such countless nuances, such wealth of combinations, such heights and depths of mood, such sweeps of passion, such vistas of imagination, that the bald submission of some electrical potentials recognizable in nerve-centres as correlative to all these may seem to the special student of mind almost derisory. It is, further, more than mere lack of corresponding complexity which frustrates the comparison? Electrical charges having in themselves not the faintest elements of the visual—having, for instance, nothing of "distance," "right-side-upness," nor "vertical," nor "horizontal," nor "colour," nor "brightness," nor "shadow," nor "roundness," nor "squareness," nor "contour," nor "transparency," nor "opacity," nor "near," nor "far," nor visual anything—yet conjure up all these.[xvii]

(13) This is another way of describing the so-called "hard"problem of consciousness -- how can we come to terms with world that appears to be divided into such radically different things as non-conscious matter and subjective experience

It seems that the greater challenge lies not in finding some way to understand how our experience of the multi-colored, multi-sensory world emerges from "electrical charges having in themselves not the faintest elements of the visual." Rather, it lies in teaching ourselves not to forget that even the most complex description of the workings of the brain is nothing more than a collection of mind-constructed percepts and concepts.

But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my "green" exists, and my "sweet" exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter.
--Andre Lind[xviii]

Part III

  1. All that we experience is within consciousness.
  2. The forms or "percepts? that we refer to as "nature" (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness —and they are constructed by the mind.
  3. The knowledge of the universe provided by science is comprised of concepts that are derived from the observation of percepts—and are also mind-constructed.

By [the principle of objectivation I mean—a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very process becomes an objective world.[ this world is in fact] a construct of our sensations, perceptions, memories.
--Erwin Schrodinger[xix]

What we observe is not Nature in itself but Nature exposed to our method of questioning.
--Werner Heisenberg[xx]

The "real" world?

What is real? We've learned throughout our schooling that what's 'real' is not anything we see or touch; what is real, is what exists independent not only of our consciousness, but of any conscious observer. Whatever it is that is really out there, is some kind of impersonal waves or particles or some such things, all in constant motion even in the things we perceive to be solid and stable. But what about the world we experience? We've been taught that the world of colors, smells, tastes (qualities which are definitely not possessed by subatomic particles or by fields of "energy"), are projected on the external world by our individual minds. They are merely subjective impositions and have no reality in themselves.[14]

Here, physicist Stephen Edelglass describes the outcome of this view of things: If we think of external reality as an existence independent of [consciousness of any kind], we cannot logically continue to picture such a reality to be anything other than neither hot nor cold, silent and colorless. We cannot even picture it as dark. Birds do not sing if by singing we mean that they emit unheard song. Their feathers are neither vibrantly nor dully hued. There is no fragrance emanating from the flowers in the field in which they sit. The conclusion is that nature, as we experience it, cannot exist as a reality in an external world that is independent of [consciousness].[xxi]

(14) I'm not advocating a purely relativist, post-modern view here. Just as our experience of the blue sky and green earth tells us something about "X,"similarly, the conceptual designations "matter,""energy,"etc., tell us something about "X"as well. Just not as much as our "half-conscious force of habit"leads us to assume. Elaborating on this point, Heisenberg tells us that, "Scientific concepts are idealizations; they are derived from experience obtained by refined experiential tools... But through this process of idealization... the immediate connection with reality is lost. The concepts still correspond very closely to that part of nature which had been the object of research. But the correspondence may be lost in other parts containing other groups of phenomena."From Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. "Other groups of phenomena"in which the correspondence is lost could, in some way, be associated with consciousness or sentience)

Unfortunately, if we think the world of electromagnetic stimuli, subatomic waves and particles is the "real" world, we run into a problem. Scientists are no longer confident these terms refer to "reality."

"What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" (Stephen Hawking)

Having abandoned objective, mechanical models of atoms, electrons, protons, etc., scientists are coming to think that these terms are primarily symbolic, reflections of something about which we know next to nothing. As Eddington put it in regard to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." The electrons, protons, etc. are, in a way, more accurately thought of as inferences based on a selection of sense data, what Eddington called 'pointer readings.'

Here, Eddington provides us with a vivid illustration of how this process of abstraction works, by describing a typical problem one might encounter on a high school physics exam:

"The problem begins: 'an elephant slides down a grassy hill-side' The experienced candidate knows that he need not pay much attention to this; it is only put in to give an impression of realism. He reads on: 'The mass of the elephant is two tons.' Now we are getting down to business; the elephant fades out of the problem and a mass of two tons takes its place. What exactly is this two tons, the real subject-matter of the problem?... Two tons is the reading of the pointer when the elephant was placed on a weighing machine. Let us pass on. [The candidate continues in this way to abstract further measurements from the world of experience.] And so we see that the poetry fades out of the problem, and by the time the serious application of exact science begins we are left with only pointer readings." [xxii]

Note that we're not simply dealing with just any kind of abstraction from sensory experience. Rather, the unique aspect of the method developed more than four centuries ago by Galileo, Leibnitz, and their contemporaries is that the final form the concept takes is purely quantitative—the result of measurement.

Rather than presenting us with reality, the most we can say is that scientists have classified, correlated, and ultimately, measured the data received by our senses. We hardly know what "atoms" or other scientific concepts are in themselves. Physicist Bernard d'Espagnat suggests that atoms may be thought of as "emergent properties of space or space time." Heisenberg thought that atoms are not things at all, and physicist Henry Stapp claims that elementary particles are not independently existing entities, but sets of relationships. Richard Feynmann has said, "It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is."[xxiii] And chemist A.G.Cairns-Smith notes that, "We know now for sure that we do not know at all what matter is".It is a fundamental mistake to identify a model with reality... Force, field... mass, energy... space, time... particle, wave [are simply elements in the scientific model].[xxiv][15]


The fact that the scientific method does not provide us with knowledge of "reality" but rather, simply gives us concepts based on our sensory experience, is not meant to be a negative criticism. A problem arises only when we forget, as Schrodinger pointed out, "the subject of cognizance." Once we realize that science does not provide us with the real world—or even a "more real" world than the one of our everyday experience, we can simply accept it as one particular way of gaining understanding about the world. The scientific way—which for short, we'll call the quantitative approach—has given us a tremendous amount of reliable information about the world, and has led to profound changes in virtually all aspects of human endeavor.

But we should not think that means the scientific method has in any way established that consciousness is not a fundamental aspect of reality. It may not be, but, as scientists have no method of detecting consciousness, there is no way to ascertain this.[16] That is, we have no way of knowing, when relying solely on scientific methods, what it is (if anything) that exists apart from our percepts and concepts.

(15) Or as physicist Steven Weinberg puts it, "In the physicist's recipe for the world, the list of ingredients no longer includes particles. Matter thus loses its central role in physics. All that is left are principles of symmetry"(Cole 1999).

(16) They can detect correlates of consciousness—neuronal activity, blood flow, etc.—but have no means of directly detecting the subjective experiential aspect of conscious awareness


All that we experience, all that we know—even that which we discover
through the most sophisticated scientific methods—
is known within consciousness.


At this moment, are you awake or dreaming?
Do the objects around you exist solely within your consciousness?


Part IV:

  1. All that we experience is within consciousness.
  2. The forms or "percepts" that we refer to as "nature" (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness —and they are constructed by the mind.
  3. The knowledge of the universe provided by science is comprised of concepts which are derived from the observation of percepts—and are also mind-constructed.
  4. Science, utilizing concepts based on percepts constructed in response to something unknown—something beyond the mind—only explains a limited aspect of our experience.

[In the study of modern physics] we can never understand what events are, but must limit ourselves to describing the patterns of events in mathematical terms; no other aim is possible. Physicists who are trying to understand nature may work in many different fields and by many different methods; one may dig, one may sow, one may reap. But the final harvest will always be a sheaf of mathematical formulae. These will never describe nature itself. . . . [Thus] our studies can never put us into contact with reality.
--Sir James Jeans[xxv]

What we observe is not Nature in itself but Nature exposed to our method of questioning
--Werner Heisenberg[xxvi]

Human beings are stuck in a Midas-like predicament: we can't directly experience the true texture of reality because everything we touch turns to matter.
--Nick Herbert[xxvii]

What do scientists mean when they say they have "explained" something? Physicist Steven Weinberg was astonished by a casual comment made to him by a fellow scientist: "You know, science does not really explain things. It just describes them." Weinberg responded to this in an article, "Can Science Explain Everything? Anything??[xxviii]

He begins with a quote from the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein: "At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena."[17] He dismisses this as a misunderstanding of what scientists mean by "explanation." Philosophers, Weinberg says, should listen to scientists and accept what they mean by "explanation." The scientists' use of "explanation" has nothing to do with purpose. Scientists, Weinberg says, explain the regularities they see in nature by finding a few simple principles (by which he means laws of nature), "from which all other regularities can be deduced."

But in the conclusion of his article, Weinberg makes a curious admission: "Finally, it seems clear that we will never be able to explain our most fundamental scientific principles." He adds a parenthetical comment, "Maybe this is why some people say that science does not provide explanations." So it seems that perhaps Wittgenstein was not so wrong.[18]

Scientific explanation: STRs and the "subject of cognizance"

How might Weinberg's view of scientific explanation be expressed in terms of the ideas developed so far in this essay? What are scientists doing when they try to explain things (like how matter took form after the 'big bang,' how galaxies and solar systems took shape with their astonishing regularities, how life emerged from matter, how the process of evolution works, how mind and consciousness emerged from non-conscious matter, etc)? They observe forms that arise in awareness, make increasingly complex and refined measurements of those forms, and then based on their measurements, develop increasingly broad generalizations about the patterns—spatiotemporal regularities, or "STRs" for short.

(17) At least two mathematicians share Wittgenstein's view. Henri Poincare has said that "a mathematical law cannot reveal the true nature of things,"and Alfred North Whitehead said that, "People make the mistake of talking about 'natural laws.' There are no natural laws. There are only temporary habits of nature."

(18) Though philosopher Daniel Dennett appears to suggest that chance might be a reasonable explanation when he asserts that the laws of physics "could themselves be the outcome of a blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos." Biologist Richard Dawkins is a little more forceful in his acceptance of randomness as a sufficient explanation for the universe: "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt and other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

In all this explanation, we do not discover anything wholly independent of our concepts or percepts. By reducing the universe of our experience to a system of measurements, we have essentially acknowledged that we know next to nothing of whatever it is that lies beyond our human knowledge.

As we've seen from examining the process of perception, our sensory experience is a construction based on an extremely limited selection from "something" which lies outside of our individual awareness. From that limited selection, we construct concepts, and then based on those concepts we devise a set of measurements. From those measurements, we develop hypotheses we call "laws of nature", and ultimately reduce those further to come up with the simple principles "from which all other regularities can be deduced."

Before we go on to consider what "X" might be—or if it's even possible to know what X might be—there's one more thing worth considering about the nature of scientific explanation.

It's often said that in the course of centuries of scientific progress, one of the most powerful results has been the dissolution of many of humanity's most cherished illusions. Life and consciousness have been found to be no more than complex forms of non-living, non-conscious matter. All things move, and evolution proceeds, by means of non-conscious, non-intelligent, non-living principles. There are no conscious forces animating the material world. Human consciousness is the result of complex material processes in the brain, and is itself nothing ultimately different from non-conscious, non-living matter.

It is not the aim of this essay to question these conclusions. But it is important to consider that, given the methodology developed by Galileo, Leibnitz and others, these were foregone conclusions from the beginning. If the ultimate explanatory principle for everything in the universe is expressed as a quantity, then if there is anything in the universe that is non-quantitative, it will not be found by the scientific method. This would not be a problem if the quantitative method were seen as one particular method, the one used by science. But because it has been so fantastically successful in the exploration and understanding of the physical universe, it has come to be seen as the only valid method of knowledge. And in the process, it has been forgotten that it is only through subjective knowing—through conscious awareness—that anything is known at all.[19]

As Schrodinger put it, "Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part o an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very process becomes an objective world. [This world is in fact] a construct of our sensations, perceptions, memories."[xxix] Commenting on this, physicist Shimon Malin says, "Since... physics, obeys the principle of objectivation, it is set up to treat the subjects of its inquiry as lifeless objects. If they are, in fact, [conscious], their [consciousness] will not show up under scientific scrutiny, because the... subjective, or experiential aspect was excluded from the inquiry right from the start."[xxx]

To repeat, this is not to say there is anything wrong with explaining nature in terms of spatio-temporal regularities ("STRs"). Surely, nobody can dispute that STRs as an explanatory concept has led to a dramatic transformation of human civilization throughout the world. What we're questioning is the assumption that an STR-based explanation provides us with a complete explanation of the world, beyond which nothing more can legitimately be said.

(19) The understanding that all we know of the universe through scientific methodology are mentally-constructed percepts and constructs was not original to quantum physics. 20 th century physics only forced us to recognize what has been true all along of scientific methodology. William Blake recognized this over two centuries ago when he warned of Newton's "single vision"(seeing the universe solely in terms of quantities) and more than a century before that, Cardinal Bellarme warned Galileo to consider his conclusions to be useful means of dealing with sensory appearances rather than an "ultimate Truth." Schrodinger notes that this understanding was there more than two millennia ago: "Please note that the very recent advance [of quantum and relativistic physics] does not lie in the world of physics itself having acquired this shadowy character; it had ever since Democritus of Abdera and even before, but we were not aware of it; we thought we were dealing with the world itself." (from "What is Life?, p. 126



It can be a very interesting exercise to take a scientific passage and examine it closely along the lines suggested above. As you read slowly, keep in mind that all that is spoken of are percepts, experienced within (i.e., by means of) consciousness or "knowing." The concepts offered—matter, energy, electromagnetic activity, etc—are derived from observation of percepts, and the ultimate ruling principles are quantities derived from analysis of those percepts and concepts. It may sound trivial, even hopelessly naive when stated so briefly. However, when you work through it on your own, you may be quite surprised at how powerful the effect can be. You may find it more striking in passages from neuroscience or evolutionary biology, where the assumption of a wholly mind-independent world is more strongly rooted than in physics, where that notion has been more extensively questioned. [xxxi]


Part V

  1. All that we experience is within consciousness.
  2. The forms or "percepts" that we refer to as "nature" (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness —and they are constructed by the mind.
  3. The knowledge of the universe provided by science is comprised of concepts which are derived from the observation of percepts—and are also mind-constructed.
  4. Science only explains a limited aspect of our experience.
  5. Because scientific methods do not tell us what lies beyond our mind-constructed percepts and constructs, there is no scientific finding that compels us to think of "X" as either conscious or non-conscious, living or non-living, intelligent or non-intelligent.

Science provides no support for the idea that "X" is conscious, living and intelligent:

There has been much discussion of late of the claims of ["scientific support" for "transcendental events"]. Speaking as a scientist, I find the alleged proofs totally unconvincing; speaking as a human being, I find most of them ridiculous as well.
--James Jeans

Science provides no support for the idea that "X" is non-conscious, non-living and non-intelligent:

When an investigator has developed a formula which gives a complete representation of the phenomena within a certain range, he may be prone to satisfaction. Would it not be wiser if he should say 'Foiled again! I can find out no more about Nature along this line.'
--Sir Arthur Eddington

A William Jamesian defense of non-dogmatic science

Science cannot prove that "X"—the unknown beyond our percepts and concepts—is conscious, living and intelligent, because the method of science, in the end, yields only quantitative data. For the very same reason, science cannot prove that "X" is non-conscious, non-living and non-intelligent, because it investigates "Nature" only "within a certain range", along a particular "line." Beyond that "certain [limited] range" there is, Heisenberg reminds us, another "part that has not yet been understood [which] is infinite."

When we look at the very same data along another line, with different perceptual and conceptual tools, we may find we make very different discoveries—without violating any of the "laws of nature" that have been arrived at by means of scientific experimentation. (Or, we may not!)

Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne gives the following, often quoted example of how one can provide two distinct yet fully compatible explanations for the same phenomenon. He asks, why is the pot of tea boiling? If we answer from a purely objective perspective, we might say, because the stove was turned on, creating a flame to excite the molecules in the tea pot, causing their temperature to rise, which in turn excites the molecules in the water, causing their temperature to rise, ultimately bringing the water to boil.

Or, we can answer from a more subjective perspective, saying, "Because I wanted tea."

Remember that science, as currently practiced, has no means of detecting the presence of (the subjective, experiential aspect of) consciousness anywhere in the universe. If we did not know that human beings were conscious, and were using the scientific method, we could not provide the second answer—"because I wanted tea." Similarly, if consciousness of some kind had a causal effect on the physical universe, we would never know it using the current methods of science.

If consciousness of some kind is having a causal effect on the planets, the stars, on the formation of elements, on evolutionary mutations, this would not necessarily involve violation of any laws of nature.[xxxii] Further, science as currently practiced would have no way of knowing of this effect. And, if this consciousness were on a different "plane" (or planes) of causation than the seemingly objective factors we ordinarily take to be causal forces in the world, there is no question of a "consciousness of the gaps" being involved, since there are no gaps being filled in.

A meditative excercise

Let's look at this in a little more detail, using the example of a piece played first by a live musician and then by a player piano.[20]

(20) For those who have never seen one, player pianos were very popular in the early 20th century. Many of the great pianists of the day recorded "piano rolls,"which could be purchased and inserted into the piano. There's a number of ways to "play" the player piano -- the ones I used to play require you to push two pedals, which keeps the piano roll "rolling,"which in turn causes the keys to be depressed. Some player pianos only require you to flick a switch and then the whole thing proceeds on its own. If this is confusing, take a look at the YouTube version. You may especially enjoy searching for "ampico". You'll find mechanical piano recordings by great composers such as Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. I found it particularly uncanny to watch a mechanical piano version of Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de Nuit" - a deeply lyrical and expressive composition

First, here's the live version:

So now you're watching Allen Dale playing the 12th Street Rag (which you may know from the Joe Franklin show, if you're a bit older, or from Sponge Bob Square Pants, if you're a bit younger). Allen's added a number of very nice variations on the old 1914 tune, which he clearly is enjoying quite a bit.

Now, check out the player piano version:

Not quite the same notes of course, but it follows the general theme.

In terms of our theme, what's the difference between the two versions of the 12th Street Rag?

If we limit ourselves to the movement of the piano keys, the only "cause" we need to consider is, in the first case, Allen's fingers striking the keys, and in the second case, the piano roll controlling the key movement. We then would have a "complete" explanation of the movement of the keys, without any need for the intervention of consciousness, right?

But we know (or assume), by empathy (or as neurologists say these days, because of our "mirror neurons"), that Allen is (a) conscious, and (b) intentionally moving the keys.

So in one instance, we see that the movement of the keys is caused by Allen Dale's conscious intention. With the player piano, we have what might be called a kind of Deist situation—the (presumably) conscious human being sets the player piano in motion, then it mechanically plays the music. Actually, if you look closely at the YouTube video, you see there is someone who occasionally steps in—like God occasionally intervening in nature to produce a miracle—and changes the setting on the player piano.

On the other hand, we could analyze the entire situation in purely objective terms, without resort to consciousness at all. We might simply examine Allen Dale's brain, and observe the billions of neurons firing, and say, "What need is there to assert the presence of consciousness when the entire process can be explained in purely objective terms?" And we'd be correct. If we exclude consciousness from the outset as an element of our explanation, we would be able to present a coherent, objective and apparently comprehensive explanation both of the player piano and of Allen's playing.

But we might also analyze the situation from a radically different perspective, without violating the objective analysis in any way.

First, we keep in mind that the only way we know the music and visual images is by means of awareness. We have no direct evidence of Allen, the piano, the player piano, of YouTube, even of our computer screen, as existing entirely apart from consciousness of any kind.

Second, we keep in mind that the experienced sound and experienced visual images cannot exist apart from subjective consciousness of some kind. Without awareness, there is no sound, no visual image, no tactile sensation of moving piano keys, no experienced piano, no experienced computer, etc.

Third, we may use concepts that physicists have developed to explain the purely "physical" movement of the keys, along with concepts that neurologists have developed to explain the activity of brain cells. However, we have no way of knowing if these explanatory concepts—having been developed using a method that excluded consciousness from the outset—are actually a "complete" description of what is happening.

Does science (as currently practiced) tell us what the fire is that breathes life into its equations?

We could also choose, with Sir Arthur Eddington, to look again at our analysis, and say to ourselves, 'Foiled again! I can find out no more about Nature along this line." And then, if we were to find a reliable scientific method that could discern the presence of consciousness in the universe, we could utilize that method to explore what is or making the piano keys move, and possibly discover something altogether new. Or perhaps we wouldn't, but until we were to have such a method, scientifically speaking, we must remain agnostic about the extent to which consciousness is a causal factor in the movement of the piano keys.

Similarly, with respect to all natural phenomena—the birth of the universe, the formation of galaxies, the emergence of life and consciousness—we may choose to analyze them in a purely objective fashion, and then believe we have a complete explanation of the phenomena we are studying, without needing to resort to consciousness as a causal factor. Or, we may look for a new methodology—a means of detecting the presence of consciousness in the world—and check out for ourselves whether or not Sir Arthur's suggestion would bear any interesting fruit.

Shaving science with Ockham's razor

As far as developing a methodology to detect the presence of consciousness in the world, that will be the subject of a future video series. Meanwhile, I'd like to conclude with a thought about the principle of "Ockham's razor"— the idea that scientists should look for the simplest explanation for any phenomenon they are investigating. When it is suggested that consciousness be considered as a possible causal factor in the physical universe, the principle of Ockham's razor is often cited. The underlying idea is usually something along the lines of, "We already have an elegant, simple, yet comprehensive physical explanation for the universe. Trying to add consciousness as a causal factor would be superfluous." However, Ockham's razor would be more accurately clarified as looking for the simplest explanation that is adequate for the phenomenon. Or, as Einstein put it, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." [21]

(21) For example, is the postulate of a mind-independent world a violation of Ockham's razor? After all, the only world we know is one that we know by means of consciousness
Exercise: Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor

Once again, take a brief passage from biology, neuroscience or another area of science. Try out both assumptions—"X" is non-conscious, non-living, non-intelligent", and, "X" is conscious, living and intelligent". As you explore these assumptions, apply Ockham's razor—which assumption(s) is the simplest, without being too simple? See to what extent each of these assumptions account for the phenomena described in the passage you're reading. Do they both account for the full range of phenomena equally well?

Try spending more time examining the assumption that is different from the one you normally hold. If your general view is that X is conscious, spend more time studying the passage while assuming that X is non-conscious. If you think X is non-conscious, challenge yourself, see how much support you can find for the idea that X might involve consciousness or intelligence in some way. Keep in mind that you are going beyond the scientific evidence equally with either assumption.

If you find this idea interesting, you could go further, and try the exercise with some of the great unsolved scientific mysteries, such as the birth of the universe, the emergence of laws of nature, of life, and of consciousness. Again, spend more time exploring the assumption that is different from the one you normally hold.



[i] In the course of the essay, I've tried to address the most common objections to the suggestion that science does not provide evidence which precludes the existence of a non-material reality. However, it might be helpful to give a cursory overview:

(1) the idea of consciousness as a causal force in the universe is often thought to violate one ore more laws of nature (the 2nd law of thermodynamics is often specifically mentioned in this context. Concerns about the 2nd law are dealt with specifically in a later endnote). Laws of nature, as I hope is made clear in the 3rd section of this essay, are not independently existing, fixed, objective realities. Rather, they are concepts based on observations of phenomena, which point to rather remarkable spatio-temporal regularities in our experience. They have been modified in the light of later discoveries. Nobel prize winning physicist Brian Josephson suggests that if consciousness is a causal factor, "physical law itself may have to be redefined" (quoted in The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, p. 281).

(2) the "God-of-the-gaps" objection, or as I refer to it here, "consciousness-of-the-gaps"; as I explain in the last two sections of the essay, the suggestion that consciousness might be a causal factor involves no gaps. Rather, it is proposed that one way of looking at things yields a purely, quantitative, non-conscious understanding of the world, and another way of looking at the same things may yield another understanding of the world. Both explanations or understandings of things can exist simultaneously; thus, there are no gaps being suggested in this paper.

(3) the objection to "idealist" philosophy; I've attempted to maintain, for the most part, a neutral stance with regard to all metaphysical claims in this paper. In fact, it's my understanding that scientific findings are consistent with a large variety of non-materialistic views, including panentheism, non-dualism, qualified non-dualism, interactive dualism, objective and subjective idealism, etc. However, I have tried not only to avoid suggesting that one of these might be superior to materialism or physicalism, I have maintained throughout that nothing I've presented in this paper precludes the conclusion that materialism or physicalism may in fact be the best foundation for scientific endeavor.

(4) Finally, there's the objection of "Ockham's razor". Science, having successfully explained—according to the objectors—the birth and evolution of the universe as well as the evolution of life with a purely materialistic outlook, it may seem that one is introducing an unnecessary new and complex element by suggesting that consciousness may also be a causal factor in the evolution of the cosmos and of life. In fact, I agree, it would be introducing an unnecessary complexity to propose that consciousness might be a causal factor if it's not one. However, if it is, then Ockham's razor is irrelevant. As Einstein said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." One could suggest the converse of the common objection: since all we know is known by means of consciousness, the introduction of a hypothetical mind-independent world—one for which we can never obtain evidence—constitutes a violation of Ockham's razor.

Another way to test whether you really hold a metaphysically neutral view of science is to consider the relationship of the brain and mind. William James, over a century ago, said the scientific evidence is consistent with a purely materialistic view—that brain produces mind; and a non-materialistic view—that brain transmits consciousness, but consciousness does not depend on mind. If you are inclined toward a materialist view, you will probably immediately come up with an objection along the lines of what Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and others think is a conclusive argument against any non-materialistic view, namely that, when parts of the brain are destroyed, behavior is affected in such a way that leads most neuroscientists to assume that aspects of mind are destroyed as well. If you would like to investigate this further, there is an excellent series of point-counterpoint articles by Keith Augustine and Chris Carter on this topic. As you read them, keep in mind the exercise here—see if you find anything referred to in the article which can be expressed as other than percepts and concepts. You can find Carter's initial article and Augustine's response here: Carter has a follow up response here:

[ii] Barfield, Owen, The Rediscovery of Meaning, "Self and Reality", p. 167

[iii] Cole, K.C., "On Imagining the Unseeable," Discover, December 1982, p.70

[iv] Jeans, J., The Mysterious Universe, p. 135.

[v] Whitehead, A., Process and Reality, p. 167. Michael Lockwood, a philosopher, disagrees that the entities described by physicists are mental constructs (at least, as far as I can understand him). Here is his definition of matter: "Those things are material that occupy or take place in space, and whose existence is ultimately constituted by the properties and relations, actions and interactions of particles and fields, or whatever basic entities physics treats of." This seems a tautological definition to me. What is rather startling to me—I've never come across this idea before—is that Lockwood apparently believes that phenomenal qualities, like love, pain, fear, etc—exist in the absence of consciousness of any kind. If this were the case, it seems it would refute the ideas presented in this paper. I can't quite grasp how a headache (that is, an experienced headache) can exist in the absence of any kind of consciousness. A wholly "unconscious" headache might refer to certain states of the brain and certain conditions of the muscles of the head, but the idea that experienced pain can exist apart from experiencing makes no sense to me. (As far as what is meant by "brain" and "muscles of the head" in the absence of perceiving and conceiving—I'm not sure what that means either).
As far as Whitehead's statement about nothing existing apart from the experience of subjects, there is the whole question of whether experiencing requires "subjects" —a question too complex to go into here. But a much simpler point—which I think is closer to what he intended by that statement—is that the mind-independent world which is implicit in many scientific descriptions of the universe is not only not possible but contradictory to the point of being incoherent. Without the experiencing subject (or, apart from experience of some kind) there are no red-hot gases or shining stars in the early stages of the universe; no blue sky or brown earth prior to the emergence of life on earth. For that matter, apart from the experiencing subject, there are no solid bricks or shiny cars. (It may appear that I'm abandoning my agnostic stance and arguing against materialism here. Not at all. There may be a mind-independent world—at least, we can't deny the possibility if we limit ourselves to the tools of modern day science. It's just that you can't claim there is a mind independent world at the same time you speak of "hot" stars or "bright" sunlight or "blue" sky. That's what I meant by saying that many scientific descriptions of the universe are contradictory—assuming a mind-independent world while at the same time describing a world which could only exist in relationship to mind).

[vi] "Why" here is meant in a teleological sense. Some say that scientists have "proven" that teleology is irrelevant to the workings of the physical universe. Since teleological thinking in scientific investigation was systematically excluded centuries ago, it was inevitable that scientists would find no evidence of teleology in their researches. If teleology is relevant, it could only be determined by a different method than the ones commonly employed by researchers. If this seems to violate the principle of Ockham's razor, see the concluding section of this essay.

[vii] Lucid dreams were once thought too strange to be accepted as legitimate objects of scientific research. However, in 1981, physiologist Stephen LaBerge developed an objective method of determining if a dreamer is lucid. He was in a sleep lab in which a dreamer was hooked up to an EEG, when LaBerge noticed that the lines on the EEG representing eye movements were following a distinctive pattern, one that was more regular than usual. Upon awakening, he asked the dreamer what he had been dreaming about. He said he'd been observing a ping pong game. So the unusual EEG pattern had reflected the back and forth movement of the dreamer's eyes as he was watched the movement of the ping pong ball It then occurred to LaBerge that he could ask an experienced lucid dreamer to signal when he entered the lucid state by deliberately make a complex, pre-agreed-upon set of eye movements that could be detected by the EEG. When the EEG did in fact show those eye movements, it provided objective proof of the dreamer's lucidity. With that, lucid dreaming became accepted as officially scientific.

[viii] The scientific literature on lucid dreaming says it's not possible to sustain attention on numbers or letters, because the part of the brain that processes symbolic language is dormant in dreams. When I performed the reality check mentioned in the text, I already knew this was incorrect, because I had once in a lucid dream read a passage in Stephen LaBerge's book where he says you can't read a passage in a book when you're in a lucid dream. I remember smiling in the dream and thinking to myself, "Hmmm, I should write to LaBerge about this." However, most of the time, it is difficult, so I figured that the alarm clock check might have been helpful.

[ix] Sri Krishna Prem, The Yoga of the Bhagavat Gita, p. 123-124.

[x] Joad, C.E.M., Philosophic Aspects of Modern Science, page unknown

[xi] Sacks, O., An Anthropologist On Mars, p. 114.

[xii] Sacks, O., An Anthropologist on Mars, p. 115.

[xiii] Sacks, O., An Anthropologist on Mars, p. 120-121.

[xiv] Sacks, O., An Anthropologist on Mars, p. 127-128.

[xv] Sherrington, Sir Charles, Man on His Nature, p. 113.

[xvi] Hameroff, Stuart, The Entwined Mysteries of Anesthesia and Consciousness: Is there a Common Underlying Mechanism?, from Anesthesiology, 2006, 105:400-12.

[xvii] Sherrington, Sir Charles, Man on His Nature, p. 113.

[xviii] Linde, Andre, "Inflation, quantum cosmology and the anthropic principle,", from Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John Barrow, Paul Davies and Charles Harper, Jr., page number unknown.

[xix] Shrodinger, E., What is Life?, p. 113.

[xx] Heisenberg, W., Physics and philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, 1958, lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter, 1955-56.

[xxi] Edelglass, Steven, Matter and Mind, p. 117.

[xxii] Eddington, Sir Arthur, The Nature of the Physical World, p. 251.

[xxiii] D'Espagnat, Heisenberg, Stapp, and Feynmann are all quoted in Wallace, B.A., The Taboo of Subjectivity, p. 134.

[xxiv] Cairns-Smith, A.G., Evolving the Mind: On the Nature of Matter and the Origin of Consciousness, p. 49.

[xxv] Jeans, James, Physics and Philosophy, p. 13.

[xxvi] Heisenberg, W., Physics and philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, 1958, lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter, 1955-56.

[xxvii] Herbert, Nick, Quantum Reality, p. 194.

[xxviii] Weinberg, Steven, Can Science Explain Everything? Anything? From the New York Review of Books, 2002.

[xxix] Schrodinger, E., What is Life? P. 118

[xxx] Malin, Shimon, Nature Loves to Hide, Quantum Physics and Reality, a Western Perspective, p. 141

[xxxi] For example, you might try working through this passage, from an unpublished manuscript by physician/researcher Daniel Gregory: The highly developed architecture of the human brain provides humans with a multi-sensory and multi-perceptual awareness of the surrounding world. It is composed of more than 20 billion interconnecting neurons, and 30,000 genes which provide a communication network and an integrated information center within the human body that receives stimuli from the complex electromagnetic and subatomic forces of the universe through a common energy system that can be traced back first to the big bang and later to the emergence of life on planet earth. A functioning brain has endowed humans with the capacity for creativity, genius, insight, inspiration and emotions such as love and desire. Humans have the capacity to judge good from evil, sort out potential outcomes, anticipate and plan for the future and generally to optimize their survival. As the human brain evolved with these powers of perceptual awareness, it also assumed the ability to perceive its own existence as a functional and independent human being, with an inner, personal, cognitive and emotional self (from "Cosmos to Consciousness; The Ascent of Humanity."
Keep in mind that the following are percepts—something we know in or by means of awareness—"brain", "neurons", "genes", "body", "universe", "planet earth". It takes a very calm, non-reactive mind to read through the passage and maintain the awareness that these percepts—these "appearances"—do not exist in some observer-independent universe. Try to keep in mind also that the following are concepts based on examination of those percepts: "multi-sensory", "multi-perceptual", "interconnecting", "communication network", "information center", "stimuli", "electromagnetic and subatomic forces", "common energy system", "big bang", "emergence of life", and "powers of perceptual awareness", among others. As obvious as this idea may be, see what happens if you read the passage very slowly and very carefully while keeping this in mind. Really, try it...

[xxxii] And even if a law like the conservation of energy were seen as being violated, such violations are understood to occur in quantum physics. According to physicist Paul Davies, "One expression of the uncertainty principle is that physical quantities are subject to spontaneous, unpredictable fluctuations. Thus energy may surge out of nowhere, the shorter the interval the bigger the energy excursion." Cited on p. 154, in "Contemplative Science," by Alan Wallace. Though Wallace does add "Whether such violations of energy conservation are applicable to [macroscopic phenomena] remains an open question."